Deeply committed to the non-violent struggle for civil rights, he went to Selma, Alabama, in response to an appeal from Martin Luther King, Jr. On March 9th, 1965, he was viciously attacked by men opposed to civil rights. When he died two days later at the age of 38, President Lyndon Johnson called it “an American tragedy.” Reeb’s death helped turn the tide of public opinion in favor of federal legislation to guarantee voting rights for the country’s black citizens.
“Shut your eyes and you can see it still: the 600 civil rights marchers massed on the bridge, crossing out of Selma toward Montgomery; the state troopers, on foot and on horseback, pounding them with nightsticks and bullwhips, firing tear gas, leaving bodies gnarled on the pavement; the fear on everyone’s faces, white and black, in a city that became, in the 1960s, synonymous with bigotry and oppression.
It was here, among the moss-draped live oaks, antebellum houses, and lasting secrets of those turbulent days, that I’d come chasing the ghost of James Joseph Reeb.
A white 38-year-old Unitarian Universalist minister with an earnest smile and tinted glasses, Reeb lived and worked in Boston’s black neighborhoods. To him, one couldn’t just believe in social justice; one had to defend it. So when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. summoned clergy to Selma after Bloody Sunday – the name attached to March 7, 1965, when Alabama authorities sent 17 marchers to the hospital – Reeb knew he had no choice.
He had been warned about going to Alabama. Many in Selma didn’t take kindly to outsiders dictating how they should live. The day he arrived, a white gang viciously assaulted him and two other ministers on a downtown street, a few blocks from the Pettus Bridge. Struck in the head with a club, he lapsed into a coma and died two days later.
Reeb was hardly the only activist killed in the bloody fight for civil rights – in fact, a black man had been shot dead in a nearby town just weeks earlier. But it took the death of a white minister to move a nation. Four days later, 70 million people tuned in to watch President Lyndon B. Johnson plead with Congress for stronger civil rights laws. That summer, he signed the landmark Voting Rights Act into law.”
I worked with James Reeb at the Philadelphia YMCA where Jim was the Youth Secretary and I was the Physical Education Secretary newly arrived from Appleton Wisconsin, than a 100% white city. The Philadelphia y adult membership, hotel residents and Y staff were 100 % white and the youth membership was 99.6 % negro .Jim was great as he fought for justice within that ymca.
One of my hardest working weeks was the time Jim took it on himself, and got me to help, to rebuild an entire rusted stairway connecting the YMCA locker rooms to the gym and swimming pool. He was hands on and tireless. We talked often about his Washington clergy time so I believe he came to the PhiLadelphia YMCA from Washington. I was living in California when Jim was killed and remember waking up to the sad TV news so it was was truly a national headline story.
No Greater Love: The James Reeb Story, by Duncan Howlett (Harper and Row, 1966).
Eulogy for James Reeb, March 10, 1965